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A History of Field Hockey

By Craig Schmidt

(LifeWire) - Those involved with field hockey say the roots of their game stretch back 4,000 years to "stick-and-ball" games in Egypt. At some point, though, in what became known as the New World, the Aztecs independently created their own stick-and-ball game before any field hockey players from the Old World had a chance to convert them to a more European style. Most would acknowledge that, as in most sports, there was a slow evolutionary process. After all, baseball is a stick-and-ball game, too, and it bears no resemblance to field hockey, except for the approximate size of the ball. The style of play most similar to today's field hockey began in England in 1849 with the formation of the first organized men's team, Blackheath. Men began playing Olympic field hockey in 1908, but women did not play on the Olympic level until 1980.

Field Hockey in the United States

There is some dispute about when the sport began in the United States. The National Collegiate Athletic Association says "evidence suggests" that the women of Maryland's Goucher College formed a team in 1897, while the men of Massachusetts' Springfield College were playing field hockey among themselves in 1899. Most would agree, though, that the game began gaining popularity in the United States only after an Englishwoman, Constance Applebee, arrived in 1901 to attend a physical education symposium for women at Radcliffe College and, appalled by what passed for women's sports there, demonstrated field hockey. Among those who saw her demonstrations was the head of athletics at Vassar College.

"The Apple," as she was nicknamed, was invited to bring field hockey to Vassar, and the young ladies in Poughkeepsie, NY, took to the sport the way preppies adopted penny loafers. A 1901 New York Times story noted the popularity of the newly imported sport of "land hockey" upstate. Applebee then introduced the sport to various elite women's schools, taught at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia and in 1920 took a team of American women to compete in England. The New York Times ran her obituary in 1981, when she died at 107 in a British nursing home.

The men's game developed popularity overseas as Britons brought the game to British colonies, especially India, but it never achieved much mainstream participation in the United States outside Anglophiles, pockets of immigrants from field hockey-playing nations and some boys' and men's teams in Southern California. USA Field Hockey says the first official men's match in the United States took place in 1928 between New York's Westchester Field Hockey Club and Pennsylvania's Germantown Cricket Club. The United States, as the 14th member of the sport's world governing body, the International Hockey Federation, did not join Olympic field hockey competition until 1932 at Los Angeles. That year, the US men earned their only Olympic field hockey medal to date, a bronze for third place, but only two other teams competed. Since then, the US men have either failed to qualify for the Olympic field hockey competition or finished in last place, which is what happened when the team, as the host nation, qualified automatically for the games in Los Angeles in 1984 and in Atlanta in 1996.

To this day, the NCAA sanctions field hockey only for women, and high school boys' teams are rare outside some parts of Southern California. Of the 26 players listed on the US men's national team roster in October 2007, seven are foreign-born, two are US natives who attended school overseas, and nine were born in California.

The national women's team is also decidedly regional, with just two players on the October 2007 roster from outside the original 13 colonies: one from Kentucky and one from California.

Olympic Field Hockey

The American women qualified for the first Olympic field hockey women's competition in 1980 but did not compete because of the US boycott of the Moscow games over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. They've qualified for every Olympics since, except for 1992, 2000 and 2004, winning their only medal, a bronze, in 1984 at the games in Los Angeles. The Australians are the only women's team to have won more than one gold medal, taking the championships in 1988, 1996 and 2000. Germany is the defending champion.

In men's Olympic field hockey, India or Pakistan won every gold medal from 1928 until 1972, when Pakistan placed second and India third to the host country, the Federal Republic of Germany. Neither country has failed to qualify for an Olympic field hockey competition since, although Pakistan boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games. Many observers believe India and Pakistan were put at a disadvantage when, beginning with the 1976 games in Montreal, artificial turf became a requirement for international competitions. Providing plastic grass for young athletes to play on in every region of a country can be rather expensive for a developing nation. Still, Pakistan placed fifth and India seventh at the 2004 games in Athens.

Return to Olympic Field Hockey Main Page

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Craig Schmidt has been a sports writer or editor for more than 30 years on daily newspapers.
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